Sixty thousand fans packed into Soldier Field stadium on a bright Autumn Saturday afternoon at the beginning of November in the Windy City, Chicago. Not for a NFL match but for a match between the US Eagles the home team and their opponents the world champion All blacks from New Zealand for a Test match of rugby union.
As a seasoned rugby fan I found this match a delight to watch . The commentary being fresh to ears like mine that hear commentators from more established rugby countries almost producing a generic language and style that until now I was unaware lulls the listener almost into a rugby trance.
The terminology used by the American commentators was different to what we are used to but quite often spot on with its descriptions. Channels were lanes. The lineout was a tunnel. Making ground or making headway was eating up real estate. Mostly what I heard was that they got it. They were using their understanding of contact sport and adapting it not only to inform the listener of the play taking place but to educate the listener about the rules and why tactics are being employed.
We are used to commentators that assume the listener understands the rules and intricacies of rugby union where their commentators assumed that most don’t understand. The American’s love throwing out stats of players; 6 foot 2 and 275lbs. I understand this too , the height and weight of a player is significant. So they give you loads of information.
They are pro’s at entertainment, informing us of what the All Blacks were doing in their off time during their visit to Chicago like going to watch the world renowned Chicago Bulls basketball team. They got onto the All Black bench and had a chat with Kieran Read captain on the day. They spoke of Sonny Bill Williams’s missus being due to give birth any day now. They spoke of their incredulity at the All Black’s turning down pizza.
The guy commentating was very quick to identify that when the All Blacks run with ball in hand it is with the intent of looking for an off load where as the Americans were not doing this. The commentators repeated how there seems like there is an extra All Black shirt on the pitch as there is always a man running a support line.
Welcome to our pain!!
The All Blacks put a premium on keeping the ball alive and keeping players behind the ball. The All Black players mentioned how physical the Americans were. This is a very important part of rugby but as the American commentator described it as ‘rugby IQ’ that is what is required in conjunction with physical ability.
The All Blacks put on a good show running in over 70 points and keeping the Americans tryless .Sonny Bill Williams and Dan Carter returning to the fold. Of the players outside the starting Test 15, Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams aside Charlie Faumuina had a good game. A guy built like him and he still able to step and swivel and off load shows the athleticism of the Kiwis because they all seem to be able to do that.
Patrick Tuipulotu is a big young second rower, who is very mobile and was moved to blindside flank later in the game. This could indicate Steve Hanson’s thinking. The Rugby World Cup being played in England. Although in early Autumn most likely will be heavy under foot. Jerome Kano and Liam Messam and Victor Vito being the Blindside flankers. Kano probably the only of that trio matching up to European Blindside flankers size wise. So he may be considering the young Tuipulotu in that role.
The Americans gave it a real go. Full of passion and physical strength they were by no means a pushover . Their game needs to develop . In defence the press is not urgent enough and the scramble defence is poor. They do make big hits and need to realise turnover possession in such situations is a split second opportunity that needs to be used as you don’t get many in test rugby. Discipline as far as adhering to the rules rather than bad behaviour needs to be worked on. To many penalties were given away for falling on the wrong side of the ruck , hands in the scrum etc. They need to be cut out of their game. In attack they need more flow more fluidity . Part of keeping the ball alive is looking for the off load and another part is doing the off the ball work to be an option for the off loading player.
Chris Wyles and Blaine Scully looked competent but spent an awful lot of the game tackling and taking high balls.Andrew Suniula look lively and threatened the All Black line several times. Todd Clever plays his heart out. Hayden Smith was a very robust ball carrier and was one of the guys who really took it to them. Samo Manoa was the standout player for the Americans, he has the full skill set and is strong, really strong. He is fit and had the engine to last out the game.
If the Americans really took up rugby , it would shake up the rugby world .They would be a threat to all the big teams and could believably surpass them.